“I was so scared I would hold my breath”
A young Afghan discusses his time as a police officer – and why he wishes he could be back in school.
NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Hashmat* remembers his first night standing guard at a checkpoint for the local police force in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. He was only there for a few hours, but it felt like an eternity.
“I was wide awake,” he says. “I was so scared I would hold my breath every time I heard rustling in the bushes.” He says he had a firearm with him the whole time, but his colleagues told him that if anyone approached the checkpoint he should wake them up rather than fire his own weapon.
“It was obvious they weren’t confident I could protect them,” he says.
Hashmat had only recently been recruited by the local police force – when he was just 16 years-old.
“I forged my ID card”
Hashmat says he applied for a position with the local police force in his village after hearing from his friends about a recruitment drive. Jobs with the police are highly coveted by boys around Hashmat’s age because of the status it gives them in their communities – and the sense of security it provides for their families.
Also weighing on Hashmat’s mind was the fact that he was now the sole breadwinner at home, responsible for supporting his three younger siblings since his father died three years earlier and with his mother unable to work in a society where many women still face significant barriers to securing employment.
The problem with Hashmat’s plan to join the police? He was too young.
“My national identity card had my age on it, and the local commander couldn’t bring himself to enlist me as a regular police officer,” Hashmat says. “So, I forged my ID card so I could enroll and earn a police officer’s salary.”
Hashmat was initially assigned mostly to cooking duties, preparing tea and bread, and running other errands at the checkpoint. But he was gradually given some firearms training before being added to the rotation list to serve at the checkpoint.
“Fortunately, our checkpoint didn’t come under major attack,” he says, although he adds that there would sometimes be small arms fighting close by – or the occasional long-range exchange. “I was always ready, and I had my weapon nearby at all times,” Hashmat says proudly.
Hashmat served in the local force for almost a year, before a crackdown by the Interior Ministry on underage recruits that he says involved some of the younger looking police officers in his area being rounded up and dismissed.
Making ends meet
Afghanistan has ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which aims to protect young people under 18 years-old from use and recruitment in hostilities. In addition, Article 49 of the National Constitution of Afghanistan mandates that forced employment of children is not permitted, while the Afghan Penal Code states that anyone who endangers the life of a child should be sentenced to at least three years imprisonment.
As a result, the Government has been working with partners including UNICEF to ensure the enforcement of laws prohibiting the deployment of underage personnel in the security forces. With the support of UNICEF, the Government has also trained police officers at all provincial recruitment centres to be able to better identify those too young to be recruited, and to refer them for much-needed support services.
But stricter enforcement has also left young people like Hashmat struggling to make ends meet. He says he has been doing odd jobs, including using a cart to sell groceries in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. “It’s so difficult,” he says. “Most of the time, it is difficult to earn enough money to provide food for my family,” he adds, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Hashmat says he wishes he could go back to school, where he used to study geography, mathematics, Pashto and Dari, and his favorite subject, history.
“Sometimes when I was at the checkpoint I’d think about my school, my classmates, my teachers and how I used to play with my friends. I was happy and carefree,” he says. “But now I’m not sure if I will ever be able to go back to school.”
*name has been changed to protect identity.